The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photograph by C Watts via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Exploring Black History Month

February is Black History Month. This month offers an opportunity to explore the histories and cultures of Black people in the United States. The library aims to include these topics in programming and content throughout the year, and this month serves as a chance to focus our efforts.

The origins of Black History Month date to the early 20th century, when historian Carter G. Woodson, in collaboration with other Black advocates and scholars, campaigned for an annual week dedicated to Black history. The organizers scheduled the week for February because it coincided with two dates of significance, particularly for Black Americans: the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist and civil rights advocate, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The first observance enjoyed ample grassroots involvement, and by the mid-20th century the week had gained widespread national attention. In 1976, the federal government officially recognized African American History Month for the first time; the U.S. president has made an annual pronouncement formalizing the month every year since.

Both African American and Black are widely used terms. While the month is also referred to as African American History Month, the library primarily uses Black History Month to stay current with national conversations about terminology. As always with terminology of this nature, it is recommended to defer to the preferences of the person or people who are members of a given community.

Learn | Programs | Educator Resources

Learn about Black History

See below for lists of nonfiction, biographies and memoirs, and contemporary fiction geared toward adult readers and centered around the experiences and perspectives of Black Americans.

For teens, kids, and the youngest readers, below are lists of books that highlight Black history, culture and experiences.

Online resources include:

Programs at the Library

Below you will find a combination of programs designed to coincide with Black History Month and existing series that amplify Black stories and voices.

As part of the series Continuing Conversations on Race, a partnership between the library and Not In Our Town Princeton, Stephanie James Harris, executive director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, a division of the NJ Department of Education (DOE), will give a presentation on Feb. 7. The Amistad Commission ensures that the DOE and public schools of New Jersey implement materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African Americans and the descendants of the African Diaspora. Click here to learn more about the event.

On Feb. 10, the library will host a session of its series Black Voices Book Group. This month, the group will discuss the novel “Open Water” by Caleb Azumah Nelson. From the publisher: “Narrated with deep intimacy, ‘Open Water’ is at once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity that asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body; to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength; to find safety in love, only to lose it.” Register here to join. The event will take place virtually via Google Meet.

On Feb. 15, the library will host a virtual discussion, “Black Activism, Then and Now,” on the theme of Black activism in historical and contemporary perspective. How have previous generations of Black activists shaped activism today? What connections can we draw between Black activism at the local, national and international level? Using famed Princeton resident Paul Robeson as one of several anchors to explore these questions and others, the conversation will consider past, present and future trends of protest, resistance and organization in the fight against racism. The program will feature attorney Meena Jagannath, Reverend Lukata Mjumbe and scholar Shana L. Redmond in a conversation moderated by Derecka Purnell, a lawyer, writer and organizer. This program is presented in partnership with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement at Princeton University and the Paul Robeson House of Princeton. Click here to register.

Come to the library on Feb. 20 for an in-person screening of “Just Mercy.” This powerful true story follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his battle for justice as he defends a man sentenced to death despite evidence proving his innocence. No registration required. Learn more here.

The library will explore the legacy of civil rights leader Malcolm X on Feb. 21 through a program featuring a video selection of his speeches. Drop by the Community Room to view the recordings. Click here for more information.

On Feb. 23, Eugene Smith will speak about his new book, “Back to the World: A Life after Jonestown,” with Christopher Fisher of The College of New Jersey’s history department. Smith lost his mother, wife and infant son in the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978. Repatriated by the U.S. authorities on New Year’s Eve, he broke a $50 bill stashed in his shoe to buy breakfast for himself and a fellow survivor. Approximately 70% of those who died at Jonestown were Black and yet “Back to the World” is the first book-length memoir of Peoples Temple by a Black man. Click here to register for the program.

On Feb. 25, the library will host an in-person screening of “Respect.” This biographical musical film follows Aretha Franklin’s life and her rise from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to international superstardom. No registration required. Click here for further details.

For younger learners, join us in the Virtual Story Room as we celebrate and share books created by Black authors and illustrators.

Resources for Educators

See the materials below for potential starting points for engaging learners. You’ll find lesson plans, digital tools, primary source collections, and more.

Content made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities